The human rights setback on the Universal Declaration’s diamond jubilee

In Egypt /Road Map Program, Statements and Position Papers by CIHRS

Message of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies on the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, came as an unprecedented historical event, an expression of a global consensus on lofty human values, embodying the interaction of major human civilizations and cultures throughout time. The Declaration emerged after the tragedies of two world wars and acts of political repression and religious persecution that had reached record scales of severity.

The global consensus included the most prominent parties in capitalist and the communist countries at that time, with the major states in the Global South on the verge of achieving national independence. This consensus included countries without state religions, and others that adopt various Abrahamic or non- Abrahamic religions, including major Islamic countries.

Two months ago, a number of the most prominent signatory countries to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights dealt a major blow to the consensus on human rights values that emerged after the Second World War. Countries that ratified the Universal Declaration gave Israel, which occupies the West Bank and Gaza, a greenlight to launch a potential war of genocide in Gaza and commit crimes against humanity against the Palestinian people. This represents a failure not only of these countries, but also a failure of the international human rights system as a whole.

The impact of this long-term blow is only deepened by the fact that Western democratic countries dealt it. These same countries distinguish themselves in the world by placing democracy and human rights at the forefront of their foreign policy agenda, with their policy matching their pro-human rights rhetoric from time to time, whether within the framework of the United Nations or in their bilateral relations. The severity of this blow is not mitigated by the widespread and popular protests in Western countries demanding an immediate ceasefire and freedom for Palestinians.

Some government officials in Western countries have joined these protests, and some have gone even further in demanding that Israel be tried before the International Criminal Court. Large numbers of Jewish citizens in these countries, among them the most prominent Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals, have joined these protests, issuing a historic collective statement in this regard. Leading Israeli human rights organizations continue to uphold their principled human rights positions and publicly oppose Israel’s brutal war and forced displacement in Gaza, even with the knowledge that some of their members were among the victims of the Hamas attack against civilians on 7 October.

The assault of some Western democracies on the values and system of human rights indicates the depth of the setback. This setback is deeper than that represented by the American invasion of Iraq, which at that time was met with sharp resistance from Western democracies, including France and Germany, in addition to countries of the Global South.

The human rights setback further extends to countries of the Global South, including Muslim and Arab countries, which constitute an influential bloc in the same anti-human rights direction within the United Nations. On occasions of solidarity between members most prominent in violating human rights, major countries of the Global South, including Islamic and Arab countries, prevented the passage of important resolutions in the United Nations Human Rights Council, including a resolution condemning China’s crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, the Muslim ethnic minority. The countries of the Global South have opposed nearly every Human Rights Council resolution on crimes committed in southern countries such as Myanmar, Darfur, Yemen, and Syria. Some Arab countries played a direct and tangible role in the deterioration of human rights in other Arab countries, including Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, and Bahrain. Countries in the Global South have even been outright complicit in regards to Israel’s war on Gaza, abstaining for the first time from actively engaging in the international arena to deter Israel’s unrelenting crimes against the Palestinians over the past two months.

The brutal suppression of human rights in the Arab region is insufficient to explaining the extent to which the effectiveness of Arab public opinion has descended on the issue of Palestine, the only unifying issue remaining on its agenda, with which the peoples of the region interact politically and legally; compared to the interactions of other peoples, especially in the West and including sectors of Jewish activists and intellectuals, on the same issue.

The Arab world’s need to rally public opinion has become an acutely vital issue, and must be given utmost priority by political and civil elites in the region. This is not only for the sake of Palestine but is also related to the fragility of these elites’ political resistance to the rampant oppression in their countries. Certainly, these elites have made exceptional sacrifices in resisting oppression, paying a heavy humanitarian price since their countries achieved national independence, and amid the Arab Spring, in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, and Bahrain. Nevertheless, these elites have failed to develop their valiant individual resistance into forms of collective organization and coordination that could crystallize into long-term joint endeavors to rebuild and democratize their societies and countries, with thoughtful strategies deployed to these ends.

The majority of these elites have not previously shown even minimal humanitarian solidarity with the victims of crimes against humanity comparable in scale to those currently being committed in Gaza, including crimes in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Darfur, and South Sudan. Many of the most prominent representatives of these elites publicly glorify the brutal Syrian president who massacred his people with chemical weapons during the Arab Spring, just as they glorified others who committed similar heinous crimes in Iraq.

In the current global framework, with its elevated levels of catastrophe and complexity, universal human rights is of even greater importance for vulnerable peoples, political elites and individuals. The peoples of the Arab region have learned from experience that an increase in the military capacity or advanced weaponry imports of Arab countries has never led to an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people. Rather, it has only led to more cruelty, tyranny, and oppression by the rulers of these countries against their people, and this oppression in turn extends to other Arab peoples.

Perhaps now more than ever, the people of the Arab region need to learn how to transfer rights and principles from paper to the field of practice. This can only be achieved by organizing politically and socially in a more effective way and becoming an influential force in local power relations, thereby compelling their rulers and the world to listen to them. Only then can the material and spiritual conditions of the Arab region be elevated to an extent where the universality of human rights values becomes reality rather than aspiration.

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